Royal Saudi Air Force F-15Cs fly with US Air Force F-15Cs in June 2019.
US Navy/Handout via REUTERS
Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering a large number of French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jets.
Such a purchase would be a break from Saudi Arabia’s long history of buying US and British jets.
If Riyadh is shopping around, it suggests it doesn’t think its traditional partners will be as reliable in the future.
Saudi Arabia has spent decades building an enormous air force composed exclusively of advanced US and British fighter jets. But Riyadh’s reported interest in potentially purchasing a large number of French jets may be a sign it doesn’t think its long-time patrons are as reliable as before.
In December, France’s La Tribune financial newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Saudi Arabia was considering acquiring 100 to 200 Dassault Rafale fighters. The report comes amid developments suggesting Riyadh’s traditional suppliers may not be as forthcoming with jets in the future.
In October, anger at Riyadh over a cut in oil production led US lawmakers to propose legislation freezing all American arms sales to the kingdom, which could have grounded most of the Saudi air force and would further fray already strained US-Saudi relations.
In July, Germany announced it would not allow additional Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets to be delivered Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air force’s 72 Eurofighters are its second most numerous fighter type behind its US-made F-15s.
Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have already built up large fleets of Western-made jets that include dozens of Rafales. The La Tribune report, while unconfirmed, suggests political and practical concerns are pushing the Saudis toward the French jet.
A French Dassault Rafale flying near Salon-de-Provence in May 2022.
Toni Anne Barson/Getty Images
Buying more Typhoons would be “the sensible move” since the Saudis have the infrastructure to train and operate with that jet, “but a German block prevents that,” said Sebastien Roblin, a widely published military-aviation journalist.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also “not currently inclined to throw Washington any free bones by ordering F-15EXs,” and despite an “about-face” by President Joe Biden, Roblin said, the Saudis know future jet sales “could be disrupted by domestic political revulsion for Riyadh’s actions domestically or the war in Yemen.”
As bin Salman pursues detente with his main rival, Iran, and improves relations with China, opposition to such sales may only increase.
Roblin noted that France has sold armored vehicles, helicopters, artillery, air-to-ground Damocles targeting pods, and SCALP cruise missiles to Riyadh and that French political culture values having “a diversified, independent defense sector” and is therefore “much less susceptible to human-rights-based misgivings, which has enabled sustained arms sales to a wider stable of clients in the Middle East.”
Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets near Riyadh in January 2017.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images
Consequently, Saudi Arabia buying 100 or more Rafales would be a big “economic win” that would “score Riyadh an upgraded strategic partner outside of the Washington or London,” though Roblin pointed out that Gulf states have a habit of hyping arms buys from new sources, including Russia or China, to elicit “jealous counteroffers from their ‘main’ strategic partners.”
Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, said Rafales could be an “attractive option” to Riyadh, which remembers well the US and German sanctions imposed on it after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
French jets are also modern and built by a NATO country, potentially reducing issues with integrating the jets with the Saudis’ other Western aircraft. France’s less restrictive end-user agreements “underlines this attractiveness,” Bohl added.
Riyadh’s non-NATO options for jets are relatively limited, and buying Russian or Chinese jets would likely incur US sanctions, which makes Saudi interest in the Rafale seem “realistic,” Bohl said. “Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its air force so that if it has an interruption with one of its arm suppliers, like the United States, its air wing doesn’t grind to a halt.”
Shifting US-Saudi ties
President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022.
In the near-term, Saudi Arabia may find Rafales more burdensome than beneficial, given its extensive investment in US and British aircraft.
“I would be surprised if the Royal Saudi Air Force procured Rafale, given the size and well-established state of its F-15 and Typhoon fleets,” Justin Bronk, an expert on airpower at the Royal United Services Institute, told Insider.
Such pragmatic concerns have kept Saudi Arabia from buying French fighters in the past. After all, Bohl said, it’s much easier to build an air force with pilots who train on a single system or with systems from a single country of origin. And despite the sophistication of French military hardware, it hasn’t been used in battle as much as US equipment has and therefore lacks a “combat record as a selling point” like US-made weapons, Bohl added.
Limits on the Rafale’s technology and availability may also deter Riyadh.
A Saudi Air Force F-15 taxis for takeoff at King Faisal Air Base in February 2021.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Katherine Walters
While the Rafale F4 is “one of the most advanced and versatile of the 4.5-generation fighters on the market,” it is “not a true stealth fighter” with the advanced capabilities Saudi Arabia wants, Roblin said.
Even if Riyadh ordered Rafales tomorrow, they would take at least several years to arrive. “Right now, a big problem is Dassault’s factory is already booked with orders for over a hundred additional aircraft for Croatia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates,” Roblin said.
The strength of US-Saudi relations has kept Riyadh firmly in the US camp for decades, but Bohl said that relationship has “fundamentally shifted” and the US is no longer “as expansive of a defense partner” as in the past, a trend that may add to the appeal of other countries’ weapons.
“Under previous kings, Saudi Arabia saw the United States as a reliable protector of its security and was willing to do favors through energy policy and arms deals for Washington in exchange for this guarantee,” Bohl told Insider. “That led to Riyadh being less willing to do special favors for the United States, like going to it exclusively for arms purchases.”
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.